Category Archives: Ingredients

Oral Testimony and Remedies Over Time

By Alun Withey

When studying the history of recipes, the longevity of certain remedies, ingredients or substances in healing is often striking. In terms of the early modern period, it is often remarked how far back certain remedies into ancient Greek or Latin texts; in many cases, how far forward they survived is also noteworthy – often long after the rise of (modern) biomedicine.

One of the ways through which we can track this process is through surviving examples in oral testimonies. While early twentieth-century antiquarian obsessions with all things weird and grotesque might not fit with modern academic approaches, the records they collected from oral testimonies, especially from people in rural areas, are often fascinating. Indeed, in many ways, these records are often the only remnants of medical traditions now past and, even more interestingly, the fact that they can be traced back through family generations tells us something about transmission.

An interesting survey was taken in the 1970s of herbal remedies still in use in rural Wales, which had some evidence of long-term family use. In many cases, recipes and ingredients they provided can be readily found in early modern collections. In the early modern period, it was common to use snails as ingredients in recipes to treat eye conditions. Typically, they might be impaled on a pin, with the juice allowed to drop into the afflicted eye. In the 70s, interviewees remembered similar recipes used in their families, including one involving skinning 12 black snails, putting sugar on them and leaving them overnight, before eating the gooey remains the next day!

Another enduring ophthalmic remedy was the ‘snakestone’ or ‘adder stone’ – essentially a polished river stone resembling a snake’s eye. Directions for use of the snakestone can commonly be found in Medieval and early modern texts and, when the survey was taken, reports were included for glain nadredd – in English, ‘adder beads’.

The example shown here was found in the foundations of an old Carmarthenshire house i 1836, and can be seen in the Carmarthenshire County Museum: –

An 'Adder stone' found in the foundations of a Carmarthenshire house in 1836

It was reportedly common to use the herb rue in preparations for children suffering from worms. Similar remedies occur in several Welsh collections of the 17th century. Lungwort and eyebright were still in evidence in the 1970s for respiratory and ocular conditions, respectively, and can be traced well back almost into antiquity. Human urine was another common ingredient in the seventeenth century in a variety of remedies and, in living memory, has still been noted as having cosmetic value and also in the treatment of ear conditions. Perhaps most interestingly, in a journal article of 1906, it was reported that a Montgomeryshire woman who injured herself with a scythe went back to the scythe for seven days after and repeated an incantation over it. This bears extraordinary similarity to the so-called ‘weapon salve’ noted by Sir Kenelm Digby in the seventeenth century, whereby the idea was to treat the instrument that had injured somebody, rather than the wound itself.

Image used with permission of the Wellcome Trust/Wellcome Images

It is also interesting to note some echoes of older practices involving modern substances. For example, inhalants were a common facet of early modern recipes, such as boiling herbs and drawing in the steam or even, in one remedy, inhaling the vapour of Mercury as a cure for worms in the teeth. The modern practice of putting Olbas Oil or Friar’s Balsam into boiling water is little different.

In many respects then, it is worth remembering the longevity both of remedies and medical practices. While manuscript collections give us evidence of usage, of remedy networks and contributors, oral testimonies often yield more direct evidence of the transmission of remedies from generation to generation. They also speak of people’s continuing belief in the power of old remedies, even in the face of modern, scientific, alternatives.

(For a fuller discussion of this survey see Anne E. Jones, “Folk Medicine in Living Memory in Wales”, Folklife, 18 (1980), pp. 58-68)

See Lisa Smith’s blog post about cure-all medicines here:

Also, for a different version of this post, see my blog article at:

Sticky eyes or weeping wounds: trying to interpret the Pozzino tablets

Thousands of pharmacological and cosmetic recipes have come down to us from the Greek and Roman world. On the other hand, archaeological discoveries of ancient remedies are few and far between, and findings that can be analysed chemically and botanically are even rarer. Recently, ancient medicine made the news with the publication by a team of Italian scientists of the chemical analysis of remedies found aboard a Roman shipwreck – the Pozzino shipwreck, second century BCE [1]. The ship carried numerous pharmacological preparations, some of which are still in the process of being analysed (see here for more detail), and the publication focused on six roundish tablets preserved in a tin box. The scientific analysis revealed that the tablets contained 80% of inorganic materials, mainly zinc oxide and hematite, as well as starch, beeswax, animal and plant fats, pine resin, and other plant remains.

The tin box (pyxis) in which the tablets were found
The tin box (pyxis) in which the tablets were found

The authors of the article, referring themselves to ancient treatises on simple medicines (that is, treatises dealing with one pharmacological ingredient at a time), suggested that these tablets are eye remedies. A search (with the help of the electronic database of ancient Greek texts – the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) through ancient collections of pharmacological recipes also shows that zinc oxide and hematatite were used together in the treatment of eye diseases, as in the following example, which is extracted form Galen’s collection of Medicines according to Places :(second century CE)

Sweet-smelling remedy of Syneros against long-lasting ailments [of the eyes]: it works against eye-discharge and lachrymal fistula: cleaned Cadmia [zinc oxide], 28 drams; hematite stone, burnt and washed, 25 drams; Cyprian ash [i.e. copper], 24 drams; myrrh, 48 drams; saffron, 4 drams; Spanish opium-poppy, 8 drams; white pepper, 30 grains; gum, 6 drams; dilute with Italian wine. Use with an egg. (Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Places 4.8, 12. 774 Kühn)

This recipe, like many others, gives very little indication as to how the remedy should be prepared. I would suggest that all dry products should be crushed together in a mortar; diluted in wine and moulded into tablets. These should then be dried and dissolved in a liquid (here an egg) when needed. The modern reader will wince at the use of pepper in eye remedies, but making the eyes cry appears to have been one of the aims of ancient ophtalmological preparations, one of which was so unpleasant it was called ‘the thankless’.

Powdered zinc oxide

While zinc oxide and hematite stone would confirm an interpretation of the tablets as eye remedies, fats, resins and waxes are rarely listed in ancient ophtalmological recipes. To find an ancient recipe combining mineral ingredients, wax, fat and resin, one must look at formulae for cicatrization. The following example is attributed to Asclepiades (first century BCE) and preserved by Galen:

Asclepiades wrote the following concerning cicatrizing poultices…: burnt zinc oxide prepared with wine; roasted copper; of each 16 drams; wax, 80 drams; Colophonian resin, 8 ounces; sufficient amount of Italian wine. Crush the copper and zinc oxide with the wine, until the preparation has the consistency of wet cerate. Break the wax and resin into pieces, place in a ceramic vessel and add to these 1 litra of myrtle oil. Place on coals and stir continuously. When the ingredients have dissolved, remove from the fire and let the preparation cool down. Add the crushed ingredients, mix together, and use diluted with myrtle oil. (Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Types 2.14, 13.524 Kühn)

Experimentation would be required to determine the exact consistency of this remedy, but it is clear that it would have been much waxier than the Pozzino tablets. And here is the crux of the problem: it is impossible to find a recipe that lists all the ingredients entering the composition of these pills. And the same issue occurs every time scholars try to bring together written and archaeological sources in the field of ancient medicine. Some scholars will argue that many written recipes have been lost; others that every physician and pharmacologist in the ancient world had his own ‘secret’ recipes that were never written down. Whatever the case, the fascinating discoveries relating to the Pozzino tablets offer much opportunity for archaeologists, chemists, ethnopharmacologists and medical historians to collaborate and establish sound methodologies to bridge the gap between material and written pharmacological evidence.

[1] Gianna Giachi, Pasquino Pallecchi, Antonella Romualdi, Erika Ribechini, Jeannette Jacqueline Lucejko, Maria Perla Colombini, and Marta Mariotti Lippi, ‘Ingredients of a 2,000-y-old medicine revealed by chemical, mineralogical, and botanical investigations’, PNAS 2013 110 (4), 1193-1196

Tobacco Smoke Enemas in Eighteenth-Century Domestic Medicine

By Katherine Allen

Over the holiday I was working on a transcription of an eighteenth-century recipe book and came across an initially humorous recipe for treating ‘the winde & Collick’ (Wellcome, WMS 3500) which goes as follows:

And so is tobacco given in A pipe [when] it is well Lighted the small end to be oyled and put up into ye fundament and some body put the great end into their Mouth and blow the smoake up into the body this never fails to give ease to the winde collick you may put A small Glister pipe into the body and put the small end of the pipe Tobacco in the End of ye Glister pipe this way will Convey the Smoak into ye body very well. (fol. 87r.)

This surprising description of getting a companion’s assistance in administering the remedy has inspired me to write this post on the history of the familiar phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse [ass]’ and the possible use of tobacco glisters in eighteenth-century domestic medicine.

Tobacco Plant. Image Credit:

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is a type of herb in the night shade family Solanaceae. It was smoked by indigenous peoples in the Americas as far back as 1000BC, but gained popularity in Europe and in global markets through trade in the sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century, tobacco was a popular luxury good in England and was increasingly consumed more for pleasure than medicinal treatment.

But how was tobacco used as medicine in the early modern era? Discussing the humoral and astrological qualities of tobacco, Nicholas Culpeper stated in an eighteenth-century version of his herbal that it was a hot and dry herb under the dominion of Mars. Tobacco was useful as an infusion for vomits, rheumatic pain, and piles. As a distilled oil, it was used for aching teeth however, ‘the distilled oil is of a poisonous nature; a drop of it taken inwardly will destroy a cat’. Culpeper also praised tobacco as an expectorant, a digestive aid, and a pesticide for vermin and for preventing plague.[1]

Those who are familiar with recipe collections will have surely come across at least one recipe using tobacco, and the most common recipe seems to have been a tobacco ointment. The Tyrrell Family collection has one such recipe which called for bruised tobacco leaved infused in red wine and then boiled in hog grease along with tobacco juice and beeswax.[2] Tobacco has astringent qualities and acts as a coagulant, and would have been an effective ingredient in salves for treating wounds. Another recipe stated that the tobacco salve ‘is an excellent Mundifier [cleanser] and healer of old sores, and Ulcers, if the sores be first washed with a little good brandy, which ought to be done, till the sores look fresh, which it will do in 3 or 4 dayes if this course be taken.’[3]

Wellcome, WMS 7822, fol. 11r. Image Credit: Wellcome Library

But, when and how did tobacco smoke enemas come into use and how did this treatment come to be in a household book of remedies? The phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse’ means to get a rise or reaction out of someone, sometimes by giving them insincere compliments for attention. This phrase originates from the practice of using smoke enemas to resuscitate near-drowned victims via stimulation and it was first practiced by indigenous groups in North America.[4]

During the eighteenth century, tobacco smoke enemas were used by humane societies across Europe, including the Royal Humane Society in London, to resuscitate victims.[5] Culpeper included the tobacco enema under treatment advice for the inflammation of the intestines induced by colic or hernia and suggested that it ‘is of singular efficacy in obstinate stoppages of the bowels, for destroying those small worms called ascarids [roundworms], and for the recovery of persons apparently drowned.’[6] Physician Richard Mead was a proponent of the tobacco glister, using it to treat iatrogenic drowning caused by immersion therapy for hydrophobia and mania, and later Thomas Sydenham wrote a treatise on its use in bowel obstructions.[7] The use of this treatment declined in the early nineteenth century when it was affirmed that the nicotine found in tobacco can stop blood circulation if there is too much in the body, as in the case of an enema.[8] By the mid-nineteenth century the enemas were not used by the medical faculty.

Tobacco Pipe Enema circa 1773. Image Credit:

There is no author associated with the tobacco glister recipe found in MS 3500, but it is likely that this information was communicated to the compiler by a physician. This particular collection is dated 1688-1727 and was owned by a Mrs. Meade (and others), but it does not appear that she was related to Dr. Richard Mead. Several of the recipes are however directly attributed to Dr. Richard Lower for treating the young Nathaniel Meade, one of which is a purge dated the 1st of December, 1688.  There is also one recipe attributed to Dr. Needham on the page before the tobacco glister recipe.

Considering that tobacco enemas were only in vogue from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, it is unusual to find this medical advice in a domestic collection, let alone one dated from the early eighteenth century. As it is improbable that an eighteenth-century household would have had its own tobacco pipe for administering a glister for bowel complaints, I suspect that this recipe is an example of a physician’s remedies being copied into a domestic collection. More importantly, this is an example of how recipe books were continually evolving and being updated alongside innovations in the medical faculty. What started as a chuckle over an amusing recipe has led me to explore the history of this peculiar remedy from its use by the medical faculty to its indigenous origins; giving a whole new meaning for me to the phrase ‘blow smoke up one’s ass’.


[1] Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Family Physician; or Medical Herbal Enlarged. Vol. 2 (London, 1782). p. 134.

[2] Wellcome, WMS 7822. Anon [Tyrrell], ‘Collection of Medical and Cookery Receipts, 17thC-18thC’, fol. 11r.

[3] Wellcome, WMS 1796. Anon, ‘Collection of Cookery and Medical Receipts, c. 1685-c.1725’, fol. 64r.

[4] Raymond Hurt et al., The History of Cardiothoracic Surgery from Early Times (London: Parthenon, 1996). p. 120.

[5] Lawrence Ghislaine, ‘Tools of the Trade, Tobacco Smoke Enemas’ The Lancet vol. 359 issue. 9315 (April 2002): 1442.

[6] Culpeper, p. 281.

[7] Thomas Sydenham, ‘Schedula Monitoria, or an Essay on the Rise of a New Fever’ in Benjamin Rush, The works of Thomas Sydenham, M.D., on acute and chronic diseases: with their histories and modes of cure (Philadelphia: B & T Kite, 1809). p. 383.

[8] Ghislaine, 1442.

Medicinal Compounds, Efficacious in Every Case

By Lisa Smith

Perhaps the most famous cure-all of all time is Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, immortalized in song as “Lily the Pink” (or “The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham”).* Although the original vegetable compound aimed to treat women’s ailments, the song suggests—tongue in cheek–that it might have much wider, rather miraculous applications. The boy with sticky out ears learns how to fly; the man who thought himself Julius Caesar becomes emperor of Rome.

Ridiculous. How, after all, could one drug cure so many ailments? In the modern world, cure-alls just don’t make sense.

But they did at one time. In early modern Europe, cure-all medicines were as likely to be sold by elite physicians as by “quacks” and were often made domestically. These treatments made sense. In a humoral body, with its properties of cold, hot, wet and dry, many seemingly different problems might have the same underlying cause.

Bridget Hyde’s book, late seventeenth century. Wellcome Library, MS 2990, f. 52v. Image Credit: Wellcome Library.

“Dr Stevens’ Water” was a common remedy in English remedy collections kept by well-to-do families. Authors sometimes provided lists of a treatment’s “virtues”, which usefully explain the underlying rationale. Bridget Hyde, for example, described Dr. Stevens’ Water as good for the vital spirits, inward colds, palsy, dropsy, gout, bladder stones, weak sinews, barrenness, worms, tooth-ache, stomach, and “rayns of ye back”. (Reins of the back refers to a urinary or genital discharge.)

An even more impressive and random list than Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound! What all of these illnesses had in common, however, was that they were caused by cold and wet humours. Looking up each ingredient in herbals and pharmacopoeias reveals that herbs like nutmegs, cloves, mace, aniseeds, lavender and rosemary (for example) had warming and drying properties.  Rosemary was ruled by the Sun and Aries; given its warming and comforting properties, it was commonly prescribed for any problems caused by cold humours. Mace, ruled by Venus, was chiefly used for treating problems of the womb.

Sometimes the connections are surprising. “Pertes de sang” (or blood loss) in French collections could refer to general losses of blood, excessive menstruation or uterine bleeding, miscarriage – or diarrhoea.  For example, one remedy for fluxes of blood in Mme Lievain’s book (Wellcome Library MS 3258, f. 132) also specified its use in diarrhoea. The main herb, cinquefoil, was commonly used for stomach problems as well as fluxes of all kinds, with a cooling property to sweeten the blood.

Most cure-alls did not try to treat everything, but had a clear rationale and focused on a group of closely-related ailments.

That said, not all cure-alls were created equal — and there were some weird ones out there. Lionel Lockyear, for example, claimed that his pills had the extract of the sun in them. Even better than Lily the Pink, then…

Broadsheet advertising L.Lockyer’s patent medicine. Image Credit: Wellcome Library.

*A rather entertaining song, though it needs an ear worm alert.

This has been cross-posted at the Cliopatra award-winning Wonders & Marvels, a fun group blog that focuses on odd stories and interesting historical tidbits. 

More on multi-purpose remedies can be found in my article, “Imagining Women’s Fertility before Technology”, Journal of Medical Humanities, 31, 1 (2010): 69-79.